Europe`s crises and the EU`s `big three`

West European Politics
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Europe’s crises and the EU’s ‘big three’
Ulrich Krotz & Richard Maher
To cite this article: Ulrich Krotz & Richard Maher (2016) Europe’s crises and the EU’s ‘big three’,
West European Politics, 39:5, 1053-1072, DOI: 10.1080/01402382.2016.1181872
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Date: 14 November 2016, At: 12:54
West European Politics, 2016
VOL. 39, NO. 5, 1053–1072
Europe’s crises and the EU’s ‘big three’
Ulrich Krotz and Richard Maher
This article examines the impact and significance of the Crimea–Ukraine–Russia
and the eurozone crises on relations among and between the EU’s three biggest
member states – Britain, France and Germany – as well as their individual influence
and roles within the EU. The Ukraine and eurozone crises have revealed and
intensified three longer-term developments in contemporary European politics:
Germany’s rise as the EU’s most powerful member state and its role as Europe’s
indispensable policy broker; the resilience and centrality of Franco-German
bilateralism, despite the growing power imbalance separating the two; and
Britain’s diminished and diminishing role in EU affairs. To put the current period of
turmoil in perspective, this article also aims to contribute to a better understanding
of the operating logic of crisis, continuity and change in the relations of the EU’s
big three member states.
KEYWORDS Crimea‒Ukraine‒Russia crisis; eurozone crisis; Britain; France; Germany; European Union
The European Union today faces a set of crises that threaten its historic achievements of the past six decades. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and de facto
invasion of eastern Ukraine represent direct challenges to the post-Cold War
European security order and the principles that have defined it, including territorial integrity and the inviolability of national borders. A revanchist and revisionist Russia complicates European security affairs in ways many Europeans
hoped and expected had disappeared with the end of the Cold War. The debt
and banking crisis in the eurozone has exposed serious flaws in the design
and implementation of monetary union and the single currency. The euro
was intended to unite Europeans and EU member states economically and
politically. Instead, it has driven them further apart and has become a growing
source of tension and division. While independent of each other, these two
predicaments pose deep and fundamental questions about the nature, shape
and future of the European project and of European affairs more broadly.
While various studies have analysed the implications of these two crises
for the EU’s polity and its policies, this article directly addresses the impact
and significance of the Ukraine and eurozone crises on relations among
and between the EU’s three biggest member states – Britain, France and
CONTACT Ulrich Krotz [email protected]
© 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
1054 U. Krotz and R. Maher
Germany – as well as their individual influence and roles within the EU.
As the member states with the deepest reserves of power and influence, these
three historically have had the greatest ability to shape outcomes and find
solutions to common EU problems. When some combination of the trio leads,
other member states often fall into line, whereas when they do not – or when
they cannot agree on how to lead – paralysis and gridlock often result. Whether
the EU emerges from these crises as a stronger and better functioning polity,
therefore, or as a weakened and hobbled giant, will depend in large part on the
choices, actions and policies of the EU’s big three member states.1
Relations between the big three comprise various formulations, including
one trilateral relationship (Britain‒France‒Germany) and three bilateral ones
(Britain‒France, France‒Germany and Britain‒Germany) – as well as the ebb
and flow of national policies, roles and strategies. A trilateral ‘concert of powers’
or ‘directorate’ has never emerged within the EU. Much more important for the
shaping of European affairs and EU politics and policies have been the various
bilateral relationships. In addition to frequently being central in security and
defence initiatives, the Anglo-French partnership has at times aimed to serve as
an informal hedge or balance against German power and influence within the
EU.2 While Anglo-German bilateralism has never been central to the politics
of European integration or to EU affairs more generally, Britain and Germany
are often reliable allies in promoting free trade and market-oriented economic
policies within the EU, and serve as a counterweight to the statist initiatives
often preferred by France and other member states (Parker and Peel 2012).3
The Franco-German partnership has played by far the deepest and most fateful role of the three bilateral relationships in shaping the scope, depth and pace
of European integration.4 Franco-German reconciliation – the ability to overcome centuries of rivalry, war and mistrust to build a constructive and functioning bilateral relationship – has been the very core, and a sine qua non, of
the European project. While differences and disagreements have always existed
between Paris and Bonn/Berlin, the Franco-German partnership has become
deeply institutionalised, emerging as an integral part of both the political and
public life in both countries and generating its own type of bilateral order.5
To evaluate the Ukraine and eurozone crises’ impact on the roles, relations
and influence of the EU’s big three member states, this article addresses three
main questions: What is the nature and character of these crises’ impact on
their relations, and particularly on how power and authority is distributed
among them? Are we witnessing a painful and lasting rupture in their relations,
a revitalisation of their commitment to Europe and to their common fate, or to
a settled arrangement that lies somewhere between these two extremes? And
finally, why and how do the answers to these two questions matter for European
politics and EU affairs?
This article argues that the Ukraine and eurozone crises have revealed and
intensified three longer-term developments in European politics today. The
West European Politics 1055
crises have affirmed and hastened Germany’s rise as the EU’s most powerful
member state and its role as Europe’s indispensable policy broker; shown the
resilience and centrality of Franco-German bilateralism, despite the growing
power imbalance separating the two; and displayed Britain’s diminished and
diminishing role in EU affairs. This article does not aim to provide an exhaustive
analysis or review of these two crises or their long-term consequences. Instead,
it seeks to clarify and evaluate the three developments listed above and their
implications for European politics.
This article also shows how the Ukraine and eurozone crises, which are
different in many obvious and important respects – the one primarily an issue
of regional security and the other primarily an issue of political economy and
monetary affairs – and which are usually considered separately (except, perhaps,
as two sources of stress and tension on European politics and decision-making
today), do in fact exhibit several distinct and surprising underlying similarities,
most notably revealing the same three broad trends in European politics today
listed above.
In addition to analysing the impact and significance of the Ukraine and
eurozone conflicts on the EU’s big three member states, we also hope to better
understand the operating logic of crisis, continuity and change in their relations.
Doing so will not only help to put the current period of turmoil in perspective, but will also allow us to fill a gap in our understanding of the operation
of the EU political system. Even after six years of turbulence, concepts such
as crisis, continuity and change remain incompletely understood by scholars
of EU politics.
This article proceeds as follows. The first section introduces an analytical
framework to study continuity and change within the EU political system, and
the broader implications for EU affairs that they entail. The next two sections
analyse in turn the Ukraine and eurozone crises and how they have affected the
distribution of power and authority among the EU’s big three member states
and their individual political roles and orientations. The conclusion reflects
on this article’s main findings and the implications for and study of European
and EU politics.
Crisis, continuity and change in big three relations
From their beginnings, the Ukraine and eurozone crises have generated various
disagreements and disputes over policy and strategy among British, French and
German policy-makers, from the scope and severity of Russian sanctions, to the
proper way to stabilise and reform the eurozone. Quarrels and squabbles among
the three have existed since the beginning of the European integration process,
of course, and have notably included de Gaulle’s veto of Britain’s membership
application to the European Economic Community (EEC), the fear and anxiety Germany’s post-Cold War unification instilled in London and Paris, and
1056 U. Krotz and R. Maher
Britain’s controversial opt-out of the Franco-German plan for monetary union.
Ultimately new bargains, new rules and new institutions resolved these and
other periods of crisis, and integration either consolidated or moved forward.6
Scholars, policy-makers and pundits today reflect on whether the EU’s big
three member states will be able to overcome the current period of crisis and
avoid a fundamental rupture in their relations – or if the twin shocks of Russia’s
undeclared war against Ukraine and the protracted eurozone turmoil might
slowly pull the EU apart (Soros 2014). The Ukraine and eurozone crises have
also prompted scholars to think more deeply about the management and resolution of political conflict within the EU, institutional and political cohesion
in periods of crisis, and the dynamics of continuity and change in member
state relations.7
Crises are important historical junctures – ‘extraordinary moment[s]
when the existence and viability of [a] political order are called into question’
(Ikenberry 2008: 12).8 Within a political order like the EU, crises lead to one of
three possible outcomes: breakdown, transformation or adaptation. Breakdown
involves the disappearance of the old system. Fundamental disagreements arise
over the political order’s basic underlying bargains, norms and principles. The
old order does not reconstitute itself. New institutions, rules and structures do
not replace the old ones. Instead, disorder replaces order.
At the extreme, balance of power politics and strategic competition may
return when the old order falls apart. Few observers seriously imagine that
this could be the fate of Britain, France and Germany today, even if the bonds
of political or economic integration further weaken or unravel – whether
through a British exit from the EU, growing tension over economic policy in
the eurozone, or some other, unanticipated development.9 The form breakdown
would take between the three would be different, but nonetheless significant and
far-reaching. Breakdown most likely would involve the collapse of the single
currency, a broad repatriation of power and authority from Brussels, or perhaps even a German‒Russian rapprochement that would come at the expense
of EU goals and policies. Breakdown would lead to a significant downgrade
in relations between the big three and a lasting reluctance to embark again on
projects of economic, social or political integration. To date, big three relations
– and the EU political order more broadly – have shown no inclination toward
this outcome.
Crisis can also lead to a transformation of the system (or policy sub-systems),
which leaves the order in a fundamentally different state. In this scenario the
political order is maintained but restructured in basic ways, leading to new
political and institutional arrangements. States, perhaps together with EU-level
entities, develop new governance structures. The basic rules and norms of the
order are renegotiated, and new bargains replace old ones.
Transformation would involve a serious and sustained effort by the three
to create a more cohesive polity, probably with further transfer of power and
West European Politics 1057
authority from national to supranational institutions and bodies. The Ukraine
crisis could serve as a catalyst for the creation of a more robust European security and defence framework, for example, either among the three or embedded
within EU structures and institutions. To overcome the problems of monetary
union and the single currency, the three (or, more likely, France and Germany)
would lead efforts toward clearer and more robust rules, or more fiscal or political integration. Such transformative steps have not yet been taken, and, given
the current political climate, appear unlikely in the near future.
The third outcome is adaptation, which is in between breakdown and transformation. Adaptation constitutes a continuation of the political order in its
fundamental respects. The old order is not completely replaced, but the formal
mechanisms of the old order are altered or modified. New rules and institutions
are added to cope with new challenges, disagreements and problems.
At times inelegant and often muddled, ad hoc responses to crises or other
unsettled situations, adaptation would include incremental yet meaningful
modifications to eurozone governance, such as tighter fiscal and budgetary
rules; clear mechanisms for state bankruptcy, eurozone exit, or bailouts; or yet
further enhanced policy tools for the European Central Bank (ECB). Regarding
the Ukraine crisis, adaptation would involve further development of common
EU policy instruments and capabilities in foreign and security policy, including
on the rules and mechanisms that govern the imposition of sanctions and other
coercive measures against third-party countries.
As the next two sections show, to date both the Ukraine and the eurozone
crises have led to adaptation rather than to breakdown or transformation of
big three relations and the EU political order more broadly.
The Ukraine crisis: the return of geopolitics to Europe
Russia’s seizure of Crimea in March 2014 and its ongoing proxy war in eastern
Ukraine directly challenge the post-Cold War European political and security
order. The conflict has already claimed over 9000 lives and has derailed more
than two decades of fitful efforts to pull Russia closer to the West. The crisis not
only threatens to reverse Ukraine’s post-Communist economic and political
gains, but has also created a level of uncertainty over Russia’s intentions and
behaviour unmatched since the days of the Cold War.10
The crisis also represents a serious setback to the Eastern Partnership (EaP),
the EU’s signature initiative to build closer ties with Ukraine and five other
post-Soviet states. Moscow still views these territories as part of its privileged
sphere of influence, despite repeated Western warnings and admonitions that
such behaviour belongs to Europe’s past. Geopolitics and security competition
have thus returned to the European continent, with an increasingly revisionist, nuclear-powered Russia openly challenging the post-Cold War status quo
(Legvold 2016; Lo 2015).
1058 U. Krotz and R. Maher
Though violence has abated since the signing of the February 2015 Minsk
II ceasefire agreement, the situation in Ukraine remains dire.11 The country is
facing economic and financial collapse, its military forces stand no chance of
retaking territory seized by the Russian-backed separatists in the east, and there
is growing concern across European capitals that eastern Ukraine is moving
toward becoming a ‘frozen conflict’, marked by interminable violence and the
absence of a lasting and stable peace.
Rather than leading to breakdown or transformation, however, the Ukraine
crisis has led to the adaptation of the EU political order. Individual EU countries have not abandoned the pursuit of European unity for the potential of
enhancing their own privileged ties with Russia. Nor have they taken decisive
steps toward greater integration, especially in defence, to counter the Russian
threat. Instead, Britain, France and Germany have coalesced around a common approach toward Russia’s actions in Ukraine. This strategy has mainly
included trying to prevent a more serious deterioration of the security situation in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, dissuading Russia from pursuing any
steps that might lead to further instability, either in Ukraine itself or at points
further west, and raising the costs Russia must pay for bullying its neighbours.
Shared concern that Russia may destabilise Ukraine if Kiev pursues a deeper
economic and political relationship with the West, indignation over Russia’s
flagrant breach of international law, and Germany’s ability to coordinate a common approach amid disparate attitudes and interests among EU member states
have bolstered this consensus.
The Ukraine crisis has also revealed and sustained three bigger trends in
European politics today: a more visible and important leadership role for
Germany, the resilience of Franco-German bilateralism (though marked by a
reversal of traditional roles in crisis diplomacy), and Britain’s growing disengagement from EU affairs.
Germany: bound to lead
The Ukraine conflict marks the first time Germany has played a leading role
in a major international security crisis since the end of World War II (Speck
2015). German Chancellor Angela Merkel was instrumental in negotiating
the 13-point ‘Minsk II’ ceasefire agreement in February 2015, and Germany
has been at the forefront of designing and implementing EU sanctions against
Russia, the principal policy instrument EU countries have used to punish Russia
for its actions in Ukraine and to deter it from taking yet more provocative
The conflict has coincided with an effort by some German policy-makers to see their country take a more active role on regional and global security issues. Speaking at the 2014 Munich Security Conference, for example,
German President Joachim Gauck called for greater German engagement in
West European Politics 1059
international affairs. Germany at times uses its National Socialist past as an
excuse, he said, to not contribute to pressing global problems and concerns
(Bundespräsidialamt 2014). Still, Berlin has assumed its new leadership role
in the Ukraine crisis more by default and necessity than by deliberate choice
or design. Neither other EU member states nor the EU itself are able or willing
to lead, and the United States has largely left it to its European allies to manage
the crisis, thereby forcing Germany to coordinate the Western response.
Another reason Germany has taken a leadership role in the Ukraine crisis is
because it has more at stake than do to its British and French partners. It is not
clear, for example, that Germany would have adopted a similarly active response
had a crisis of similar scale and magnitude appeared on the EU’s southern rather
than its eastern periphery. Russia is both a major energy provider for Germany
and an important export market for German goods. And since Germany has
more interests at stake in Eastern Europe than do Britain or France, Russia has
the greatest potential to threaten German rather than British or French security
and welfare, as it did for more than four decades during the Cold War.
Given its extensive commercial and energy ties with Russia, Germany also
has more leverage over Moscow than any other European country (Szabo 2015).
Germany is Russia’s biggest trading partner and source of investment, while
Germany imports more natural gas from Russia than any other EU country.
Some analysts speculated that this expansive commercial and energy relationship might make Germany the principal obstacle to a unified EU response
toward Moscow (Kundnani 2015b). Merkel has consistently and sharply condemned Russian actions, however, and has emerged as one of Russia’s fiercest
critics in the EU. She has described the annexation of Crimea as ‘criminal and
illegal’, and has called on Russia to abandon the ‘politics of the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries’ (Myers and Smale 2014). She has also voiced concerns
that, without a strong and unified Western response, other post-Soviet states,
and possibly even Serbia, may be the next victims of Russian aggression (Smale
While the conflict has demonstrated a new German foreign policy activism,
it has also revealed the limits of Germany’s power and influence. As observers
inside and outside the country have pointed out, Berlin still lacks a military
dimension to its power projection capability. Germany is, furthermore, both
unwilling and unable to issue security guarantees to countries in Eastern Europe
that feel threatened by Russia, such as Poland and the Baltic states. Instead,
these countries continue to look to the United States as the ultimate guarantor
of their security.
The conflict has also underscored some of the continuities in German foreign
policy, such as its reluctance to rely on military power as an instrument of its
foreign policy. Merkel has ruled out a military response of any kind, for example, including arms shipments to Ukrainian forces fighting anti-government
rebels.13 And fearing that Moscow would view such a step as a provocation,
1060 U. Krotz and R. Maher
Germany has rejected proposals to establish a permanent NATO deployment
in Eastern Europe, instead favouring the creation of a rapid-response force that
can respond to crisis situations as they arise.
While Germany has had the biggest impact on the timing and scope of EU
sanctions on Russia, the longer the conflict continues the harder it will be for
Berlin to maintain EU unity. Two examples reveal the challenges of maintaining
long-term economic and political pressure on Russia. London, home to many
Russian oligarchs who store their wealth in City financial institutions, has been
reluctant to impose measures that might jeopardise this lucrative arrangement.
France, whose arms sales to Russia are the highest among European countries,
was forced to cancel a Russian order for two Mistral-class amphibious warships
as a result of pressure from its EU and NATO allies (Smith 2015).14
As sanctions increasingly damage their own commercial, financial and
industrial interests, and as they seem to have at best a limited impact on Russian
behaviour with respect to eastern Ukraine, political leaders and interest groups
in Britain, France, Germany and other EU countries will question the utility and
wisdom of maintaining sanctions over the longer term. Germany will then be
forced to decide how much pressure, if any, to impose on its own EU partners
to continue to isolate and punish Russia.
Franco-German bilateralism: role reversal and crisis diplomacy
The Ukraine crisis has revealed a reversal of the traditional roles in crisis diplomacy for France and Germany. Capturing the reality but also the political
and moral constraints of German power after World War II, de Gaulle once
described Europe as ‘a coach with horses, with Germany the horse and France
the coachman’ (quoted in Eddy and Erlanger 2013). Or, as Gunther Hellmann
put it more recently, in the decades after World War II, ‘For France to be in the
lead was politically necessary, morally justified, and dutifully acknowledged by
German elites’ (Hellmann 2016).
During the Ukraine crisis, however, Merkel rather than French President
François Hollande has played the pre-eminent role in formulating and implementing the EU response to Russia. But while the Ukraine crisis reversed their
traditional roles in foreign policy and security, Germany’s unfamiliar leadership
role has not replaced, rendered obsolete, or come at the expense of FrancoGerman bilateralism. In fact, there are compelling reasons why Germany will
seek to further strengthen its bilateral relationship with France as its own power
Merkel was eager to have Hollande by her side during the negotiations in
February 2015 that produced the ‘Minsk II’ ceasefire agreement, for example,
and to include France in the so-called ‘Normandy Quartet’ – the four-power
group composed of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine. Despite Hollande’s
participation in the ceasefire talks and France’s formal presence in the Normandy
West European Politics 1061
Quartet, however, there is little doubt that Merkel is leading while Hollande is
following when it comes to formulating and implementing policy responses
toward the crisis (Pond 2015). This marks a major departure in their traditional
post-war bilateral relationship.
Germany wants to have France by its side for two main reasons. First,
Germany is still deeply reluctant to be seen to be pursuing a unilateral role in
foreign policy, especially on such sensitive and important political and security
questions as those raised during the current Ukraine crisis. Having France by
its side gives Germany cover and endows its initiatives with greater legitimacy,
both at home and abroad. Second, having France on board generally makes
it easier to get other EU member states also on board. French and German
positions – whether in economic, political or security affairs – are often seen
to be at opposite ends of the spectrum of available European policy responses.
Historically, if France and Germany are able to reconcile their policy differences and arrive at a common position, other EU member states are likely to
do the same.15
The Ukraine crisis has thus shown that German leadership and FrancoGerman bilateralism are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, the desire to maintain at least the appearance of Franco-German bilateralism is not for idealistic
or sentimental reasons, but rather because both countries continue to understand that they are better able to achieve their individual and common goals
when they work together.
Britain: bystander to crisis
Despite traditionally being one of the EU’s two main diplomatic and military
actors, Britain has played a comparatively small role in the Ukraine crisis.
Prime Minister David Cameron did not take part in the February 2015 Minsk
ceasefire negotiations, for example, leading some influential British voices to
accuse him of being a bystander to the crisis.16 Also absent have been any major
Anglo-French initiatives similar to those during previous security crises, such
as the 2011 Libyan intervention. Nor have there been any major Anglo-German
or Anglo-American initiatives or coordination.
Like other foreign policy establishments across Europe and the United
States, the crisis caught British policy-makers off-guard. The British Parliament
released a report in February 2015 stating that Britain and the EU had made a
‘catastrophic misreading’ of Russia and of Putin’s intentions before the crisis.
Britain and other European countries ‘sleepwalked’ into the conflict, the report
concluded, treating it as if it were only a trade matter rather than a foreign
policy and security issue.17
Combined with the small role it has played in trying to resolve the eurozone crisis, Britain’s relative absence in the Ukraine turmoil signals a broader
retrenchment for Britain in EU and even global affairs (LSE Diplomacy
1062 U. Krotz and R. Maher
Commission 2015; Menon 2015). If this trend continues, the EU’s ability to
become a potent foreign policy and security actor will be seriously impaired.
Among EU member states, Britain and France have the most capable military
forces and the most experience in security and defence operations. And as
permanent members of the UN Security Council, they also hold significant
diplomatic experience and clout.
Eurozone crisis: dashed hopes and an uncertain future
The crisis at the heart of the eurozone constitutes one of the most serious and
fateful trials in the six decades of European integration. The vicissitudes of
the past six years have not yet precipitated a breakdown or transformation
of the mechanisms that govern the eurozone. Instead, the turmoil has led to
an at times muddled adaptation or bending of some of the eurozone’s main
rules, norms and institutions. Since the onset of the crisis, a number of new
institutions and initiatives have been created and implemented, including
the European Financial Stabilization Facility (EFSF), European Stabilization
Mechanism (ESM), a rudimentary banking union, new policy instruments
for the ECB, and greater oversight and supervisory powers over eurozone
members’ economic and budgetary policies for the European Commission.18
These steps, among others, while falling far short of constituting a true
fiscal or political union, have helped to prevent a collapse of the common
Such incremental reforms seem to be the upper limit that the vast majority of elected officials, national parliaments and electorates across Europe will
currently tolerate. While no high-ranking elected official in Europe has openly
advocated an unravelling of the eurozone in its current form, there is also
no desire for decisive steps toward full fiscal or political union, which would
require new treaties that would need unanimous approval by all 28 EU member
states, a feat appearing to be beyond the realm of the possible in the current
political climate (Moravcsik 2012).
Like the Ukraine crisis, the eurozone turmoil has revealed and intensified
three deeper developments in European politics today: Germany’s growing
clout, the resilience and centrality of Franco-German bilateralism (despite
Germany’s emergence as the eurozone’s and the EU’s indisputably pivotal
player), and Britain’s growing disengagement from EU affairs.
Germany: primus inter pares
The eurozone crisis has highlighted the power and continued importance of
national capitals, Berlin above all. Britain’s status outside the common currency and France’s comparative economic weakness has magnified German
primacy during the six years of near-constant eurozone summitry. Despite
West European Politics 1063
Merkel’s regular consultations with French officials on the proper response
to the various problems facing the eurozone and France’s pivotal role in any
lasting solution to the plight at the heart of the common currency, Germany
has been the driving force behind the various initiatives and programmes since
the beginning of the crisis.
While Merkel has declared that if the euro fails ‘then not only the currency
fails. Europe will fail, and with it the idea of European unity’, German officials
have also made clear that there are limits to putting an institutionally shaky euro
over its own fiscal position. Concerned that responsibility to bail out struggling
eurozone economies would fall disproportionately on itself, Germany has stated
that the eurozone must be governed by clear and enforceable fiscal rules. Since
the beginning of the crisis, creditor countries and institutions, led by Germany,
have insisted on fiscal responsibility and structural reforms in exchange for
financial assistance. If countries fail to follow these stipulations, the German
Finance Ministry has said, they must suffer the consequences.
One of the main paradoxes of the eurozone crisis is that Germany today
finds itself as the key member state in a currency union that it never would have
entered had it known how it would turn out. Germany has at stake not only
vast sums of money – according to some estimates Germany would be liable for
more than €90 billion in the event of a Greek default – but also the cohesion,
good will and stability it has carefully cultivated over the past several decades.
Franco-German bilateralism: divisions, but not divided
While tensions and disagreements between France and Germany over basic
questions of economic and monetary policy are nothing new, the current crisis
has revealed a number of sharp policy differences.19 French officials, for example, have had a stronger desire than their German counterparts to keep Greece
in the eurozone, believing that a Greek exit would do irreparable damage to
the single currency and to the European project more broadly. A Greek exit
would show that membership in the euro area – and perhaps in the EU – is not
irrevocable, but rather contingent on the inclination of other member states.
German officials such as Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, on the other
hand, have made clear that a Greek exit from the eurozone is a possibility, and
perhaps even necessary to maintain a fiscally sound and prosperous monetary
union (Geithner 2014: 483–4; Smale 2015; Spiegel 2015).
France has also been uncomfortable with what it sees as Germany’s rigid
approach toward countries with fiscal imbalances. With its own budget deficits,
stubbornly high unemployment and tepid economic growth, France dreads
German economic orthodoxy becoming further entrenched in the eurozone.
But lacking the ability to alter Berlin’s position, Paris has had little choice but
to reluctantly follow German prescriptions for fiscal and structural reforms
across the eurozone (Vail 2015).
1064 U. Krotz and R. Maher
France’s struggle to implement domestic reforms to revitalise its economy –
as well as having the least popular President in the history of the Fifth Republic
currently in office – has also helped thrust Germany into the eurozone’s leadership position. Though France has struggled to keep up with its partner across
the Rhine, Germany’s enhanced role in eurozone crisis management has not
come at the expense of, or the perceived desire or necessity for, Franco-German
coordination. Despite differences in economic performance and sharp disagreements over economic policy and the future direction of the eurozone,
Franco-German bilateralism has proved resilient, and remains essential to any
lasting solution to the eurozone’s current problems (Schild 2013).
Britain: on the outside looking in
Britain’s position outside the eurozone has meant that it has been absent from
many of the discussions and decisions on how to quell the turmoil at the heart
of the crisis. London has called on eurozone countries to move toward more
fiscal integration, but has no intention of joining the currency union itself. At an
EU summit in November 2011, for example, Britain vetoed a treaty proposing
a so-called EU fiscal compact – the first time Britain has vetoed an EU treaty
since joining the EU’s precursor, the EEC, in 1973. As a result, other member
states were forced to move ahead separately (Lyall 2011).
While Britain has no interest in seeing the eurozone in perpetual turmoil,
the present crisis has nonetheless provided Britain with some economic and
political benefits. The euro’s weakness makes the pound sterling stronger on
global currency markets; continental Europe’s muddle gives Britain greater
latitude to exert independence, especially in the debate over the future shape
of the EU; uncertainty over the future of the euro has allowed Britain to put
off a decision on what kind of relationship to have with it; and the eurozone’s
current plight makes Britain’s domestic politics less contentious, since there are
fewer political battles between Labour and Conservatives over Britain’s proper
relationship with its Continental partners (Marsh 2013: chapter 18).
The crisis has confirmed and strengthened many Britons’ opposition to
any further power sharing with Brussels institutions. The crisis has provided
traditional British Eurosceptics with plenty of ammunition on the supposed
dangers of closer economic and political integration, and any possibility that
Britain might someday join the common currency has most likely evaporated. There is in Britain today a groundswell of support to renegotiate the
status of Britain’s relationship with the EU. Partly as a result, Cameron has
scheduled a referendum for 23 June 2016 on whether Britain should stay in
or leave the EU.
As Britain’s role in EU policy-making becomes progressively smaller, there
is likely to be even more support among many Britons to renegotiate their
country’s membership status. As one observer noted, ‘In Britain, the case for
West European Politics 1065
staying in the EU has been complicated by the fact that, as a non-euro country,
it will never be part of the inner sanctum of power, the German-dominated
eurozone’ (Cohen 2015). A two-tier (or ‘two-speed’) Europe is emerging, with
Britain increasingly on the outside (Piris 2012).20
The Ukraine and eurozone crises are different in many important respects, but
both reveal three deeper developments in European politics today: Germany’s
growing clout, the resilience of the Franco-German axis despite the widening power imbalance between the two, and Britain’s disengagement from EU
affairs. Each development is important for the future prospects and direction
of European integration. The three happening simultaneously suggests that the
European project may be entering a new phase. Yet despite the problems and
challenges outlined in this article, to date these two crises have led neither to a
breakdown nor to a transformation in big three relations, nor to truly fundamental changes in their individual roles. Instead, the adaptation of EU rules,
procedures, institutions, and of their individual influence and orientation have
been the main outcomes.
The shift in power toward Germany and away from France is not just a
reflection of their divergent economic performances since the onset of the
global financial crisis. Combined with the inability of French leaders to implement comprehensive economic reforms over the past decade and Germany’s
comparatively robust economic growth during the same period, it also reflects
less hesitancy among many of today’s German political leaders compared to
their predecessors over asserting and pursuing a narrower conception of the
country’s interests and responsibilities.
Rather than embracing its enhanced and more visible role in Europe, however, Germany has yet to show that it is willing or able to provide the leadership and vision that Europe currently needs. Berlin has avoided supplying
key public goods within the EU, for example, such as maintaining a web of
security commitments and guarantees or serving as the lender of last resort for
eurozone countries facing balance of payments crises. And on foreign policy
issues beyond Ukraine, Germany has yet to embrace the security and defence
role Britain and France have traditionally held, as well as the burdens and
responsibilities that come with it.21
A stronger Germany and weaker France, however, has not rendered obsolete
or come at the expense of Franco-German bilateralism.22 Despite the current
crises and their at times divergent policy preferences, the relationship remains
resilient due to ideational reasons (both French and German leaders continue
to believe in the importance of the symbolism of the Franco-German partnership); instrumental reasons (the two countries continue to believe that they
are more likely to get what they want when they work together rather than at
1066 U. Krotz and R. Maher
cross-purposes); and the deep institutional fabric of the bilateral relationship
developed over six decades. One lesson of both the Ukraine and eurozone crises
has been that a more active, confident and powerful Germany on the one hand,
and a resilient Franco-German bilateralism on the other are not mutually exclusive. It is true that France is weaker today relative to Germany than perhaps at
any time since the end of World War II, but this has not extinguished the need
or desire for bilateralism. Claims that France and Germany are ‘decoupling’, or
that the Franco-German axis is on the verge of collapse, are therefore not just
premature – they fail to fully grasp the resilience of the relationship.
And as this article has also shown, Anglo-French and Anglo-German bilateralism, or a meaningful unilateral role for Britain, have been largely absent in
the Ukraine and eurozone crises. Nor has a British‒French‒German triumvirate
emerged as a serious possibility to overcome the present turmoil.
It is too soon to fully understand the lasting effects of the Ukraine and eurozone crises, and whether eventually they will lead to deep and transformative
changes in big three relations, in their individual preferences and orientations,
or the future prospects of European affairs. Europe could go in a number of
different directions over the next several years. But what is certain is that how
big three member states emerge from the current period of crisis, and the
trajectory of their relations and individual roles, will be crucial in shaping
Europe’s future course. These crises and the broader trends that they illuminate
will also encourage or perhaps even force scholars of European and EU politics
to focus on new or different questions, and to re-examine some of their basic
First, if Germany’s enhanced standing, France’s relative weakening, and
Britain’s disengagement persist or become even more pronounced, scholars will
have to think more about the role of hierarchy within the EU.23 Will Germany
gradually take on more responsibility in the EU, with all the attendant costs
and risks, or will it continue to operate as a ‘reluctant hegemon’? Or might
Germany increasingly move toward a third option, in which it displays more
ambivalence and far greater reluctance in leading the EU than it has shown
over the past five years? And as a corollary, will France be able to revitalise its
economic prospects and its position in European policy-making? Or will its
cherished ‘rank’ and grandeur further erode?
Second, if inner and outer circles of membership further solidify within the
EU – with Britain firmly entrenched in the outer ring – it will be necessary to
better understand the operating logic and implications of what some scholars
have called ‘differentiated integration’, ‘variable geometry’, or a ‘multi-speed’
Europe (see for example Leuffen et al. 2012). How will the core and periphery
relate to one another? Will it resolve some of the contradictions at the heart
of European integration today or accentuate them? And will Britain accept
membership in an organisation in which it has less and less influence over
West European Politics 1067
crucial questions of governance and authority, or will it decide to downgrade
its formal status within the EU or leave altogether?
Finally, scholars probably will devote more attention to the impact and significance of crises and other forms of political conflict, politicisation and contestation on big three relations and EU affairs more broadly, and in particular
when and why crises lead to a breakdown, transformation or adaptation of the
European political order. The current period of crisis affirms that scholars are
just starting to understand these dynamics. These and other questions suggest
that debates over Europe’s future are just beginning.
1. On the importance of the big three member states in shaping the grand bargains
that have propelled the process of European integration forward, see Moravcsik
(1998). Historically, France and Germany have taken the lead in shaping the
economic, political and institutional development of Europe, while the AngloFrench duo has traditionally led on foreign policy and security issues. On the
Franco-German role in Europe, see Krotz and Schild (2013). On Anglo-French
cooperation in EU security affairs, see Howorth (2007: 33–7). In recent years
Anglo-French security and defence cooperation has centred on the areas of
procurement and of joint missions and operations (see Burns 2010; UK Foreign
& Commonwealth Office 2010).
2. Upon German unification in 1990, for example, British Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher raised the possibility of an Anglo-French entente that would serve
as a de facto hedge against German hegemony, but French President François
Mitterrand never embraced this initiative (see Bozo 2010: 168–70). On the
post-war Anglo-French relationship, see Tombs and Tombs (2007: chapters
13 and 14).
3. On Anglo-German relations in the EU, see Larres and Meehan (2000).
4. Accordingly, the Franco-German partnership has received ample scholarly
attention (note, for example, Calleo and Staal 1998; Krotz and Schild 2013;
Simonian 1985; Webber 1999). On Franco-German bilateralism in security
and defence affairs, see Krotz (2011). For a historical overview of France and
Germany in Europe from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries, see Krotz
5. On the bilateral Franco-German order as part of the European polity, see Krotz
and Schild (2013: chapters 1–4).
6. These and other times of friction are ably captured in Dinan (2014). For classic
long-standing differences within the ‘Franco-German couple’ across a variety
of policy domains, see Krotz and Schild (2013: 37–42). On frequently diverging
French and German actions and orientations in foreign policy, security, and,
especially, defence, see Krotz (2015, chapters 5–8).
7. Among a rapidly growing literature on the problems at the heart of Europe
today, see Giddens (2013), Majone (2014),and Offe (2015).
8. The discussion in this section draws from Ikenberry (2008).
9. On how EU disintegration could transpire, see Vollaard (2014) or Webber
(2014). For a debate on the future prospects of the European project, see Krotz
and Maher et al. (2012).
1068 U. Krotz and R. Maher
10. For early appraisals of the Ukraine crisis and its implications, see Menon and
Rumer (2015) and Wilson (2014).
11. The first ceasefire, agreed in September 2014 and, like the second, also in the
Belarussian capital, quickly broke down. The February 2015 accord requires,
among other stipulations, both government forces and separatists to pull back
heavy artillery out of range of each other, the withdrawal of ‘foreign’ fighters
and equipment, and allows for Ukraine to regain full control over its borders
following local elections in rebel-held territory and constitutional changes that
would grant these regions greater autonomy. See Financial Times (2015b) for
the full text of the protocol.
12. The EU first imposed sanctions on Russia in March 2014, shortly after the seizure
of Crimea. The sanctions have targeted Russia’s financial, energy and defence
sectors. In June 2015, with Russia continuing to support its proxy forces in eastern
Ukraine, EU leaders announced that sanctions would remain in place until a peace
agreement is reached and fully implemented by the Russian-backed rebels. See
en.htm (accessed 15 October 2015).
13. Here Merkel is firmly in line with German public opinion, which strongly
opposes any kind of military intervention in Ukraine. Regardless of the wisdom
of the policy, however, Merkel’s categorical rejection of arming government
forces deprived her of an important bargaining chip in negotiations.
14. Under intense pressure, France suspended the sale indefinitely in November
2014. The order was cancelled in August 2015, with France refunding Russia’s
initial deposit (Tavernise 2015).
15. On that logic, see Krotz and Schild (2013: 8–11).
16. General Sir Richard Shirreff, for example, who served as NATO’s second most
senior military officer, described Cameron as ‘a bit player’ and a ‘foreign policy
irrelevance’ in the crisis (Financial Times 2015a).
17. See House of Lords (2015) for the full report.
18. The literature on the eurozone crisis is now voluminous. Among the best works
are Peet and La Guardia (2014), Pisani-Ferry (2014) and Sandbu (2015).
19. For long-standing differences between France and Germany across policy
domains and their ways of dealing with them, see Krotz and Schild (2013:
37–42); on differences over economic and monetary policy specifically, see
Krotz and Schild (2013: chapter 8).
20. While some scholars have claimed that a common European identity has
emerged, Britain’s identity has remained strongly nationalist (Risse 2010). On
Britain’s often acrimonious relationship with its EU partners, see Wall (2008).
21. On Germany’s status as a ‘reluctant’ hegemon, see Bulmer and Paterson (2013);
Paterson (2011); Schönberger (2012); and Schönberger (2013). Also note Garton
Ash (2013) and Kundnani (2015a).
22. On Franco-German ‘embedded bilateralism’ in European politics from the
1950s, see Krotz and Schild (2013).
23. On ‘hierarchy’ in international relations, see Lake (2009) and Wendt and
Friedheim (1995).
We wish to thank Brigid Laffan, the other members of this special issue, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful feedback on an earlier version of this article. We also thank
Katharina Meißner for valuable research assistance.
West European Politics 1069
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
Notes on contributors
Ulrich Krotz is Professor at the European University Institute, where he holds the Chair
in International Relations, and is Director of the Schuman Centre’s ‘Europe in the
World’ programme. He is author of most recently Shaping Europe: France, Germany,
and Embedded Bilateralism from the Elysée Treaty to Twenty-First Century Politics (with
Joachim Schild) (Oxford, hardback 2013, paperback 2015) and History and Foreign
Policy in France and Germany (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). His articles have appeared
in journals such as World Politics, International Affairs, Foreign Policy Analysis and the
Journal of Common Market Studies. [[email protected]]
Richard Maher is a Research Fellow in the ‘Europe in the World’ programme at the
Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute. His
research has appeared in International Affairs, International Security, Orbis and World
Politics. [[email protected]]
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